Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Lifeline

I witnessed it again this morning. And it never fails to give me a sinking, queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. It took me a while to realize it, but that feeling will never go away. Because I still care.

On my morning commute today, I saw the blue light flashing in the fog up ahead. Yes, my eyes automatically dropped to the speedometer. I was three miles over the limit which, on that road, doesn’t get you a ticket. Whoever had been pulled over was either a wannabe race car driver or had done something very, very bad. Due to the bad weather, I didn’t want the officer worrying about traffic approaching from the rear as he walked toward the car. I not only slowed, I went wide around his car so he’d know he was safe from me.

It’s funny how time can slow so you notice the most minute detail. Although I’ve seen the maneuver done before, today time slowed to the point I could almost hear a clock ticking off the seconds. As the officer approached the driver’s side window, he placed his right hand on the back of the car. For the first time, I actually witnessed the careful precision in the casual move. Fingers splayed out perfectly, the officer’s fingertips pressed onto the trunk’s surface as he solemnly approached the driver. In reality, it took a fraction of a second. To most people it appeared as if he was merely steadying himself in the wet grass so he wouldn’t slip.

He was leaving his fingerprints. As evidence. In case things went horribly wrong.

Reality is, “horribly wrong” is literally a heartbeat away. I know. I use to be the voice on the other end of that law enforcement radio.

It started as a fluke. Or, as my mind originally thought of it, my grand failure. I put myself through college. I worked hard and graduated early. I then watched all my hard work evaporate when there were no jobs available to utilize that teaching degree I now owned. Several months later I married hubby as planned and worked at a job I hated to help pay the bills. One day hubby came home with an application. It was for a position with the state police as a Tele-Communications Operator. Commonly known as a Dispatcher. I laughed. Hubby took me to meet the friend who’d told him about the job. I watched this man, who was my Dad’s age and actually knew my Dad, answer telephones, work three radios with three separate microphones, punch info into a computer and offer it back up to the faceless voices floating about the room. And still he was able to talk with us, smoothly segueing between his tasks. I left thinking one thing:

There is no way in hell I could ever do that.

And yet I did. For almost five years. And I loved it!

I’ve always been a good listener. Turns out that’s the one skill you HAD to possess. It‘s also the hardest to teach. If you have children, you probably agree. I remember the interview like it was yesterday. The Captain asked me to read a paragraph of a newspaper article to him. It was gross…a very descriptive article about an auto accident. When I finished, he smiled. I didn’t ask why until two months after I had the job. Turns out he was impressed with the fact that, although obviously grossed out, my voice had remained calm, my pronunciation easy to understand. Turns out when you get stressed or panicked, your voice pitch rises. On a radio, that distortion has horrible consequences. He then looked me in the eye and said, “I see you have a teaching degree. What if I hire you and later the school calls with a job. Are you going to quit?” I looked him squarely in the eye and replied politely, yet firmly, “Sir, if you hire me, I won’t walk away. Whenever I decide to do something, I stick with it and do it as well as I can.” He smiled. Then he hired me.

Yep, a week later the school called to offer me a job. I turned it down. Politely.

It wasn’t just because I made a promise to be loyal. Or the fact the school called a year after I applied. It was what the Colonel, the head man of this organization, said after welcoming me on board. I can still see his face and hear his voice when he added, “Your job is to aid these officers by paying attention and providing them with information. In this job, you are the lifeline. With the touch of a button, you have the power to save a life. Or get someone killed.”

Wow. Not your usual first day speech.

At the risk of sounding braggadocios, once I understood the ins and outs of the job, I was good at it. Honestly. I cared about those guys. I knew just from tone of voice if an officer was angry…and if it was at me, his wife or the Sarge. I knew who was having a bad day, who’s wife didn’t love him any more or who’s wicked sense of humor was about to be put in play. To anyone listening in, most of our radio conversations sounded like a group of numbers. To me, listening wasn’t just a job requirement. I literally held their lives in my hands. All I had to do was fail to hear and someone could become a widow.

One day the Sarge gave the guys a speech about staying out of the Radio Room. He didn’t like that they came in to use our 3rd telephone line to make calls...because unlike the other lines, it wasn’t recorded. He said they distracted us and we had to lock the door. Well, it was a half door with a shelf…which they merely leaned on to reach over and unlock the door. The Dispatchers tried explaining to the Sarge that an officer just saying hello during shift change was actually a valuable tool for us. He grumbled if he caught anyone stopping to chat, they’d wish they hadn’t.

And yet they kept stopping to chat. If he wasn’t around. Humans are funny. Sometimes you just need to look a person in the eye to verify they’d back you up…with or without the paycheck. More than once I’d listen, then say with a smile, “You know, if you’d tell your wife what you just told me, she wouldn’t be mad.” But to them, that was against the rules. What happened at work stayed at work. Mostly for legal reasons. In truth, it was because they didn’t want their wives and kids to realize exactly what they saw on a daily basis. “Hey, how are ya?“ was important. Officers are not robots. [Okay, except for the token jerk, but it’s like Murphy’s Law and inevitable]. They have feelings. Flaws. Concerns. Fears they try to hide. Me actively listening reaffirmed their human status. It was a silent nod that being human is okay.

A week after the Sarge’s “Keep Moving” speech, he was standing in the doorway when one of the officers called me. The man said two things: our station’s name [which is how they contacted you] and his call sign.

I sat up straighter in my chair, a chill running down my spine. I didn’t realize it at the time but I breathed out, “Oh hell, he’s in trouble.” As the Sarge eyed me like I needed a padded cell, when I told the officer to go ahead, his next words were “Send me an ambulance. I’ve been in a wreck.”

As I got the particulars of where-are-you-are-you-okay? the Sarge came stumbling into the room, trying to find the officer’s location on the map. He was babbling so loudly I actually told the man to be quiet. One doesn’t usually tell their commanding officer to shut up but it’s allowable when your priority is locating an officer. Especially a potentially injured officer. Sarge shut up. Rolling back in my chair I pointed at the location on the map and never stopped talking with my officer. Turned out that on a very bad 90 degree turn, another car had crossed the line, hit the patrol car and slid both of them off the road. Did I mention it was pouring down rain at the time? Miraculously no one was injured but the crash jammed the officer’s door shut. I had to talk my 6’4” Trooper out of trying to crawl out the other door before medical could evaluate him.

Nice thing about a radio relationship. Only then can a 5’1” woman win an argument with a 6’4” man….without actually arguing.

As Sarge raced for the door, he turned, looked me in the eye and asked, “How did you know he was in trouble when all he did was call you?”

“Because,” I replied with an icy calm which nicely covered my gently pounding heart, “he stops every day to say hello. I heard it in his voice.” It was the truth. Brief though our conversation had been, I heard the ever so slight break in the officer’s voice. The guy had nerves of steel. Something had to be terribly wrong for me to hear that quaver… which sailed right past the Sarge’s ears.

The next day the Sarge said it was okay for the guys to speak as long as they didn’t linger.

I am the lifeline. It became my personal mantra at the beginning of every shift. And if I fail, they will die. It wasn’t fatalistic, it was an acknowledgement that there is reason for protocol. One city learned the hard way when they failed to stick to the simple 10-codes used every day. There’s a reason you have a code…so the bad guy doesn’t know what you’re saying. An Officer pulled over a man for speeding and made the usual request that his dispatcher check to see if the car was stolen. He did so using the 10-codes. He and the Dispatcher had worked together for years. While that can be a good thing, being too comfortable can make you lazy. In our business, lazy was another word for stupid. Both individuals were excellent at what they did. Except that day. That day they both failed. When the car came back as stolen, the Dispatcher called the officer and said, “Yep, it’s stolen.” The officer had failed to advise he had the man sitting in the front seat of the car with him. The man, a convicted felon, heard those words, reached over, grabbed the officer’s gun and killed him. And it all could’ve been prevented if they’d simply stuck to the code system.

I left at the end of five years because we changed shifts every week and that gets old. Plus it’s bad on your body physically. The day I left, the Captain who’d hired me looked me in the eye and said, “You’ll be back. Because you’re good at what you do. You care. And when you care, it gets in your blood. And it never leaves.”

I didn’t go back. But he’s right. It never left me. That’s why when I see a cop carefully plant his hand on the trunk of a car “just in case”, my stomach flips and my heart skips a beat. As I drove on, I hoped his Dispatcher was listening. Really listening. And I hope they started the day off by exchanging Hellos.


Poetikat said...

Wow. Hope this was gripping, well-written and thoroughly absorbing. That's why I love the blog world; you just never know what you're going to read. I would never have come across anything like this.

Thanks for such an excellent post. You must think of those days often, I suspect. Did you keep in contact with anyone from the job, or walk away from it and the people too? (I tend to shut the door on everything and everyone.)


mapstew said...

Great piece. I really enjoyed reading this.

We have our own code within the band while playing, all based on looks and facial expressions. We've been together long enough to know exactly what each other is thinking or is about to do.
It cannot compare with what you and your colleagues did, it doesn't save lives, but it makes some peoples evening turn out that bit better.

Thanks again for a great story.

Susan said...

Wow, and wow again. One of my cousins was a policeman, and everytime we saw him in his uniform was difficult. We were proud of him, but always scared for him too--his retirement party was BIG lol.

That wasn't an easy job to take on, hon--again, wow!

hope said...

Poetikat, that 6'4" officer who helped prove my point was the first rookie I ever had. He was only 4 years younger than I and we became friends...or as I use to say, I was his non-paid shrink who listened to his women problems until he found the right one to marry. He was sharp and a good guy...and eventually wound up in the Colonel's chair as THE Commander. I never met a person more in tune with the truth and doing things the right way. Unfortunately one of "those" bad apple troopers was caught on camera beating a driver. His Supervisor didn't handle it right [as in looked the other way]. It became quite the political football. And so 6 months before he could retire with a stellar 28 year career, my friend submitted his resignation. His reason was that although he chose people he felt were best to do the job, the Supervisor had failed to live up to expectations...and my friend believed this meant he had failed for picking that Supervisor. To avoid tarnishing the image of the agency he loved, he stepped down. Broke my heart...but I was extremely proud to see the bad stuff in life hadn't harmed his Do-the-right-thing mentality.

Map, isn't it nice to be able to look at another individual and be in sync? Working with "my guys" [as I use to refer to them] was an experience that I've never been able to find again in the work place. Hey, don't underestimate music in that world! How do you think I unwound on the way home? Tunes to chill me out. :)

Susan, most officers will tell you that although they know the worst can happen, they file it away in the back of their mind. Otherwise no one would ever want to get out of the car. :) Yep, I have a respect for them that John Q. Public doesn't even understand. I can't imagine putting my life on the line daily for a group of people who often see you as the enemy instead of the cavalry.

Thanks guys...I just felt the need to share today.

debra said...

This is a beautifully written, Hope. Thoughtful, quiet, and to the point. Thank you so much for sharing it.

Rachel Fox said...

You know I can't think of a thriller written from the point of view of the dispatcher. Can you? Could be your big break novel..? Filmscript..?

hope said...

Thanks ladies!

Rachel, I did write a piece for the state's newspaper about being a dispatcher once, but that's as far as I got. :)

Rachel Fox said...

Well, on with the next phase then!